I had particular trouble with long narratives. The worst were in high school, when our English courses included Silas Marner by George Eliot and Great Expectations by Dickens. Even though they were probably abridged versions, they were excruciating. I especially didn't enjoy being forced to spend so much time with such an awful and scary person as Miss Havisham. That drudgery put me off nineteenth century English novels for a very long time.
Sometime before high school I enjoyed reading Tom Sawyer which encouraged me to go on to Huckleberry Finn. That was a bit more difficult, though it was episodic enough to keep me going. I may have tired a bit in the middle, until it got exciting again.
Saroyan was a popular and prize-winning author from the 30s to the 50s, but has largely been forgotten. He was never mentioned in any of my lit courses at college. Probably judged as too sentimental. Even Steinbeck (who I also read at this time, though sporadically) was a bit suspect.
As was Sinclair Lewis, for stylistic reasons I suppose. I read Main Street or Babbitt on my own in high school, after I tried to read Kingsblood Royal, which was about racial prejudice. It was one of his more obscure novels, which I read because a girl I had a crush on said she liked it. I was excited by the satiric edge--satire was big in the early 60s-- and the ideas, but I didn't follow the story lines of these novels completely.
So by the end of high school, the recognized literary works I read (as opposed to tried to read but failed) were mostly short stories, short novels, or episodic novels, as described in my post on paperbacks: Updike, J.D. Salinger, etc. These were in addition to other shorter works, especially classic poems and essays. The essays intrigued me as a form but I found most of them long-winded. They should see me now!
I read the classic poems and essays mostly as school assignments, but once I discovered a college anthology of English literature that had belonged to my uncle Carl Severini, I read poems and essays in that volume. In high school I found solace there when President Kennedy was assassinated, in two poems by Shelley: the long poem "Adonais" he wrote on the death of Keats, and a short poem, "Mutability."
In trying to remember which classic adventure stories I actually read when young, as distinguished from encountering as movies or comic books, I only recently recalled The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas. Once I remembered it, the experience of reading it came back to me. I read an old hardback from the library, which added to the thrill.
That book had a feature that leads me to my second point about my pre-college reading: I was the model of an NCB (Nice Catholic Boy.) I went to Catholic schools for 12 years. By high school I was starting to see the Church a bit more objectively, and eventually I was troubled by hypocrisies and lame rationalizations for activities like the Inquisition. I remember being both uneasy and thrilled that the villains of The Three Musketeers were the Catholic Cardinal and his men.
Many of the questions I had in high school questions came from actual Church history, and from applying principles we were learning in, say, Problems of Democracy class, to what we were analyzing in Religion. But there was one extraordinary reading experience, one literary novel, that became formative for me in a number of ways. How I got my hands on it was perhaps the most extraordinary element.
My sophomore year of high school I joined the Speech Club and began going to tournaments at other schools, giving extemporaneous speeches ("Extemp.") My junior and senior year I participated in Debate. My partner Mike and I won district championships our senior year in both the National Forensic League and Catholic Forensic League competitions.
The speech club advisor was Sister Ronald. Almost all of our teachers were nuns, of various denominations. I believe she was a Sister of Mercy, which (along with the Sisters of Charity who taught me in grade school) were begun and/or headquartered in our local region.
Her fixation on me even became a source of embarrassment for the school administration, as I learned when the principal asked me to "forgive and forget." I answered with a quote from Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, whose biography I had recently read for some unknown reason. "I can forgive, but if you ask me to forget, you ask me to give up experience."
Anyway, Sister Ronald must have known about this situation, and my ongoing emotional turmoil. She was a bit of a mercurial character as well. One day out of the blue she slipped me an old, hardbound copy of a book. She suggested I read it and return it to her, with the clear implication that I should not tell anyone else about it.
Our Catholic high school strictly controlled what we read. Our textbooks, even the literature collections, all displayed the nihil obstat and imprimatur indicating the contents were free from doctrinal and moral error. James Joyce, while not on the official Church Index of forbidden books, was not exactly approved either.
Joyce's novel Ulysses had been notorious, even banned in the United States until a landmark court case. His collection of short stories, Dubliners, was mostly considered acceptable--one of the stories may even have been in our paperback collection of modern authors. A Portrait of the Artist was somewhere in between, but it soon became clear to me why we weren't encouraged to read it.
|from the 1977 film of A Portrait|
This priest gives several sermons--fulsomely reproduced--describing the physical and mental torments of hell in great detail. Stephen subsequently repents and becomes a saintly figure. But when he is invited to consider whether he has a vocation for the priesthood, Stephen just as suddenly recoils against it. By the last few chapters, he has rejected the Church and is preparing to leave Ireland, for a life of "silence, exile, cunning" to artistically "forge within the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race."
Anti-clerical diatribes, sex with prostitutes (though at best I only vaguely understood this section), rejection of the Church--no mystery as to why this book wasn't approved, or was treated like it didn't exist. Why did Sister Ronald give it to me? I'll never really know. I remember that I just as secretly returned it to her.
The Viking Library annotated edition of Portrait notes that the sermons on hell were very similar to those the Jesuits gave from the 16th through the 19th centuries. Well, it didn't end there. Sometime after I'd read this book, in my junior year of high school, we had the first of our retreats--and the priest engaged to give the lectures devoted one of them to an exact echo of these graphic descriptions of hell.
I had my spells of being especially devout--I was an altar boy for several years--but I don't recall being particularly moved by this lecture. Perhaps I'd been immunized. But while the hell sermons stood out--I recall reading them at night in bed, my cold arms holding the book outside the bed covers--the influence of the book was probably subliminal, suggesting that I wasn't alone in questioning the immediate world pressing around me.
A Portrait of the Artist As A Young Man was the only book I read in high school that I subsequently read again for a class in college. It had more of a direct impact that time, the fall term of my junior year in a course on modern novels with Howard Wilson. James Joyce became a literary hero and model in the years immediately following. As for "silence, exile, cunning," I never got the silence quite right--I was a loudmouth, though I yearned for silence around me. I was soon to learn that when necessary, I could engage the cunning--with mixed success.
But exile I understood. It was the future I saw for myself with increasing definition over those late 60s years.